Valentine’s Day

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There is nothing else in the world like Valentine’s Day in an elementary school.

On the wall outside Greene Elementary there is a quote by José Martí: “We work for children because children know how to love, because children are the hope of the world.”  As I go through my day, weaving in and out of playground conversations and classroom parties and everyday exchanges, it hits me how very true and very false that quote is, all at once.

8:20 yard duty, and Juan Carlos walks alone, pacing the perimeter by the tetherball courts as he always does when his friend Yosef isn’t around.  The boys are closer than brothers, than lovers, than friends–they met when they shared an aide in first grade, and have been utterly inseparable ever since.  Now, in fourth grade, they still hold hands as they skip through the recess yard: Juan Carlos recites whole chapters from Frog and Toad are Friends, Yosef chews the neckline of his sweater and asks if every noun being discussed is either “a little silly” or “a lot silly”. Each regards the other with pure adoration.  Over time, my staff and I have done our absolute damndest to broaden both boys’ social circle beyond this little dyad: we did lunch clubs and different speech therapy sessions and seating on opposite sides of the room before taking the drastic action of different teachers altogether.  Even as they develop mildly separate classroom identities, theirs remains a love story for the ages at recess: Yosef’s class often gets released a couple minutes after Juan Carlos’, and I can almost hear the Tchaikovsky as the two reunite, utterly blind to the bemused but accepting stares of those around them as they flap their hands and tell their stories. There is a beauty  that’s almost painful in their uncomplicated joy.  Should I teach them not to hold hands because it looks weird to the rest of us?  Or should the rest of us be the ones learning, from them?

Later, in the time between recess and kindergarten lunch, I spend my ten minutes with Nathan.  He is a serious,  carefully spoken child, with a strong sense of purpose and a need to connect.  Nathan’s world makes sense to him when he’s in control: throw in any differing opinions or changes from a routine he’s expected, and the emotions he experiences become too big for him to handle.  Today, he finishes making his Valentine early, and assumes, as he often does, the role of “friendly helper”.  He walks from table to table, telling several other kids exactly how it’s done.  They love it, as they love him, because of his certainty–because they’re smaller and softer, and he knows what to do.

In first grade, another kind of love is in the air, as Jonathon struggles with what he is too young to realize is most definitely his first crush.  The art teacher is the object of Jonathon’s small affections–he fills pages and pages of manuscript paper with run-on statements about the art projects she teaches them and how very nice she is.  “Make sure she gets this”, he tells me, bouncing out of his chair when I walk through the door.  I am the teacher who comes in and out of the classroom–I am the one who can pass the message on.  Solemnly, I promise.  But I’ll take data first on how Jonathon’s doing on his write-a-sentence goal.

The trials of love continue in the other building, two doors down.  Saleem, whose intensity of social desire is only matched by his absolute naivete in social interactions, has chosen the popular girl to make a Valentine for.  All around him, his peers shape their cards for mom and dad and possibly teacher, carefully writing their letters in neat lines.  Yesterday, Saleem followed Naomi around the recess yard, monologuing to her about his favorite violent video game; this morning, in his eagerness to be first in line, he kicked Naomi’s backpack and pushed her friend to the ground.  Today, several classmates stare as he shambles his way across the room and drops the card on her desk.  She simply ignores it.  I help him erase her name.  He wants next to give it to the second most popular girl, who he previously terrified with curse words and verbal threats echoed from something he shouldn’t have seen on TV.  My heart breaks for everything as I convince him that he shouldn’t.

It’s almost time for the party in Ms. Carol’s class.  Nicholas’s mother is the Room Parent, so I know I need to make an appearance for two reasons.  One: mom’s a professional baker as well as the kind of organizational powerhouse that would have had Normandy fully stormed before breakfast.  Ms. Carol’s parties are where the snacks are at.  Two:  looking at Nicholas and his mother restores my faith in myself.  He came into our program from the general ed side of things, his behaviors out of control, his parents at a loss.  More than once, his enormous powerhouse of a mother has sobbed into my significantly smaller arms–at first because she simply didn’t know what else to do, more recently because she ran out of thankful words.  I’m no miracle worker, but I know what I’m doing, because I’ve learned from people who knew about it first.  Nicholas is exactly the kind of kid my stuff works on: when it works, it’s a game-changer.  Today, the day for celebrating love in all its form, Nicholas reminds me of why I love my job.

And there are other moments like that, unfurling as the day goes by.  A bookmark from a fifth grader who always comes to Art Club, a moment of triumph with Least Common Denominator.  A chance to tell each of my paraprofessionals how deeply I appreciate them, a few stolen party-minutes in each class that I serve.

At the end of the day, helping Ja’Neesha pass out her Valentines.  Initially, I am terrified.  Valentine distribution, in this case, involves giving a child with cognitive delays and severe behavior problems 25 bags of Skittles, then making her lose all the bags, one by one.  I select the bulkiest and most forgiving child for the first hand-over-hand candy lift-and-release.

And Ja’Neesha immediately understands–she beams and waves, and reaches for another, selecting Harriet at random and tossing her Noah’s skittles.  The room falls silent as the children help me, listening for their names as I read the bags Ja’Neesha pulls out, waving and smiling and pushing each other forward, taking the wrong bag when she shoves it at the wrong child, passing it discreetly down the row behind their backs.  A hug for her from this child, from that child, half of the class spontaneously clapping.  And the parents, waiting in the room for the dismissal bell to ring, some tearing up a bit as I do my usual narrative.

“Ja’Neesha, this is your first Valentine’s Day party. It’s okay that you aren’t reading the names yet.  You’ll learn to do that later, maybe.  For now, look how beautiful it is that you have such great friends to help you.  Isn’t it fun, to give gifts to your friends?”

There is nothing else in the world quite like the love of children.  And there are few things I love more than this Valentine’s Day.

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